Junichiro Kuniyoshi, a Japanese author, is teaming up with Jean Mercier, a French-Canadian writer, and producer, to bring the children’s book series, A.J. and the Menagerie, directly to your living room
A.J. and the Menagerie is a coming of age story of A.J. Matsubara, a 7-year-old boy who inherits a suitcase from his grandpa containing an array of teddy bears and stuffed animals. Little does A.J. know that what seems like a bunch of lifeless toys will ultimately become his most compelling companions. Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, the series follows the daily life of A.J. and the unusual events that occur. A.J. discovers community, friendships and love while navigating the idiosyncrasies of his fantastical world.
While A.J. and the Menagerie is an animated series made for children’s entertainment, its central themes are lessons that will resonate with viewers of all ages. Despite its whimsical nature, A.J. and the Menagerie is a testament to the rich, unique world we live in– a celebration of differences and love, according to Kuniyoshi.
This innocent, imaginative world that Kuniyoshi has crafted is inspired by fond, childhood memories and an innate fascination for the human condition.
Reminiscing his childhood in Okinawa, Kuniyoshi recalls attending a carnival at an air base in East Asia. He remembers spontaneously meeting an African American family and sharing a warm, cordial moment with them — eating hot dogs and playing together. Kuniyoshi also remembers interacting with soldiers stationed at the airbase and receiving stuffed animals.
The stuffed animals Kuniyoshi received remained a significant part of his childhood. He moved often and struggled to maintain long-lasting friendships. To compensate for the lack of consistency in his life, Kuniyoshi relied on his stuffed animals and toys for comfort.
“Having the stuffed animals and other toys were a way for me to protect the little world I built over the years,” he states. “It’s a bit of a metaphor”.
Drawing parallels between his childhood and this story, Kuniyoshi said that “As we grow up, we learn how important teamwork is. We work and collaborate with people, and without them, you can’t do anything. You can’t do anything alone. The stuffed animals are imaginary, but not really — the lines are blurred in this series. In a child’s imagination, it is rich and intricate”.
The themes of the series are also inspired by Kuniyoshi’s experience living in North America.
Residing in North America for 15 years, Kuniyoshi has always been fascinated and touched by the American culture and its strong emphasis on unity. Observing the human condition through a geographic lens, Kuniyoshi perceives people in Japan as being overtly homogenous relative to those in North America. However, the heterogeneity and diversity of the North American population both humbling and valuable to him.
“People from different backgrounds coming together to achieve certain goals is brilliant and very beautiful” Kuniyoshi states, referring to the diversity that North Americans have to offer. “It’s something that I would like to cherish and make as well”.
Kuniyoshi rise to literary recognition was not only driven by Kuniyoshi’s natural curiosity for the world, but also by his penchant for creative writing. Writing, in particular, has allowed Kuniyoshi to let his imagination run freely by giving him the ability to create worlds that transcend his own lived experience.
It wasn’t until Kuniyoshi attended Concordia University that his dreams of becoming a creative professional became a reality. While living in Montreal, Kuniyoshi met Jean Mercier and developed a close-knit relationship with him. Deeply moved by Kuniyoshi’s talent and dedication to his craft, Mercier knew he wanted to work with him. It was that realization where Mercier decided to entertain the idea of turning A.J. and the Menagerie into a T.V. show.
“It was a fun thing in the beginning”, Mercier states. “It was a little dream of our own”.
PBS Mountain Lake studios have just started producing the series, so don’t expect to tune in any time soon. There are 3 seasons — 52 episodes in total — currently in the making. The series will debut early September of 2019.
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